This Week in Research: Empty Your Mind; Wear a Helmet; Don’t Die in a Dumb Way

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In this  series, we take a look at the newest findings coming out of our area’s top research universities. We’ve got some great minds in Baltimore — let’s learn what they’re learning!

Quick, think of nothing! Blank! Nothing at all! Impossible, right? Well, according to Johns Hopkins neurology/cognitive science professor Barry Gordon, our inability to stop thinking is actually a very useful thing.

Our ancestors had to make life-or-death decisions requiring moment-to-moment readiness (is that a snake? how can I best flee from these enemies?); hence the evolutionary advantage of the constantly whirring brain. “Even though most of us no longer worry about leopards in the grass, we do encounter new dangers and opportunities: employment, interest rates, ’70 percent off’ sales and swindlers offering $20 million for just a small investment on our part,” Gordon explains in Scientific American. “Our primate heritage brought us another benefit: the ability to navigate a social system. As social animals, we must keep track of who’s on top and who’s not and who might help us and who might hurt us. To learn and understand this information, our mind is constantly calculating ‘what if?’ scenarios.” So the next time you’re up late because your brain just won’t shut up, take a moment to thank evolution
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You already wear your helmet when you ride your bike (right? RIGHT?) because you want to keep your skull intact; now the latest no-duh research from Johns Hopkins reminds us all that there are other places where helmets can save lives:  namely, ski slopes.

The findings turn out to be not so common-sensical as you may first think. Some skiiers have argued that helmets cause more accidents, because they provide a false sense of security and thus cause people to take more risks. The Johns Hopkins research reveals that that convoluted hypothesis is basically balderdash:  helmets save lives. In Austria (where they know a little bit about skiing), minors are required to wear helmets — is the U.S. due for similar legislation?
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Susan Baker doesn’t like it when people die. She doesn’t like it when they get shot, or when their hot-air balloon crashes, or when they get caught in a house fire. The Johns Hopkins epidemiologist has been fighting the good fight against preventable deaths via injury research, and she’s not about to stop now — even though she’s 82. The New York Times recently profiled her, and the article is full of gems.

Most people think of accidents as just that — terrible things that take people by surprise. But, according to Baker, scientists and doctors know that people get in car crashes, and they know what usually happens. Because the accidents are predictable, the injuries sustained should be at least somewhat preventable. Throughout her career, she’s advocated for infant car seats, air bags, mandatory sprinkler systems, and motorcycle helmets — thus saving thousands of lives. (Another badass tidbit:  her research is so awe-inspiring that Hopkins promoted her to a full professorship even though she never got her PhD.) Her recent project? Arguing that boys should get their driver’s licenses at an older age than girls. We’re not sure how well that one’ll go over, but if Baker’s track record is any indication, it just might happen.



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